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Thesis portrays airport district in 1938

We have detailed histories of the earliest days of downtown Modesto. The information is not nearly so complete about neighborhoods that developed later, especially the poorer neighborhoods.

But there is one exception. Modesto's airport neighborhood was examined closely in 1938 for a master's thesis prepared by a University of California at Berkeley graduate student in economics. Lillian Creisler's thesis isn't a compelling narrative. In fact, she was so conscientious in protecting the identities of those she interviewed that not one resident is even named. But her 128-page paper offers a sense of the circumstances and the priorities of the 1,500 people who occupied what once was called "Little Oklahoma." Some of her observations:

"The jest 'Oklahoma has captured California without firing a shot!' would seem to contain a degree of truth, particularly in view of the fact that over one-third of these people come from Oklahoma. ... Although there are a few families from Modesto who have moved into this area to escape city taxes, generally speaking, the individuals living in this community have come from drought states."

"There is prevalent among them a spirit of mutual aid. Many of the families had had relatives, former neighbors and friends living with them. Usually the visitors were accommodated until they, too, had set up housekeeping."

Poverty was evident everywhere. Women didn't carry wallets; they wrapped their money in handkerchiefs. Many cars were 10 years old or older, and the families could afford only a few gallons of gas at a time. Men did their own car repairs.

The newcomers took the cannery jobs formerly held by high school and junior college students -- working more hours for lower wages -- and causing some bitterness in the community.

The area, formerly an orchard, was subdivided by the Beard Land and Investment Co., with the small lots selling for an average of $160 -- but only to U.S. citizens.

Buyers had 10 years to build a house worth at least $2,000. Usually they started with a lean-to attached to their automobile. Creisler described the pattern: "Then a separate tent would be set up close to the spot where the work was to be done and the house built. Soon the tent was boarded up the sides and perhaps another tent added. As it grew colder, a shack patched up with various materials would be hurriedly constructed. Meanwhile, all members of the family would be searching and bring home building materials." Apparently a family could pull together all the materials it needed for a two-room house for $150.

While the families were open about most matters, Creisler hit a sensitive area when she asked them about "relief" or welfare.

The newcomers were as enterprising with recreation as they were in building their homes. One woman helped organize a library after so many children and men visited her home to borrow books.

Creisler interviewed not only the Dust Bowl refugees but other Modestans and she found tension. The city people made fun of the refugees' southern drawls, she wrote, and "they are accused of being stupid, lazy, dirty and immoral." The animosity showed up in themes written by Modesto Junior College students. Likewise, some of the refugees had strong feelings against other races.

Creisler concluded her thesis with optimism, concern and a prophetic observation -- "that rural slums will be established." Sixty-nine years later, the airport district and the city and county struggle to bring to some in the area the amenities common to wealthier neighborhoods.

Not in her thesis, but obvious today, of course, are the parallels between the experiences of the Oklahoma refugees and the immigrant workers.

Sly is editor of the opinions pages. Contact her at jsly@modbee.com or 578-2317.

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